So I woke up this morning to read two good reviews of The Bird Saviors, which of course makes my Father’s Day: One in the Dallas Morning News, here, and another in the Houston Chronicle, here. And in honor of Father’s Day, I’m including an essay about my own father’s life & death, and the role that guns played in it. I (obviously, after you read the essay) have ambivalent feelings about guns, and now live in the boonies, where the sound of gunshots from my neighbors “target practicing” (I guess) in their backyards is a common occurrence. It’s something I live with. I guess you could say I’m used to it.
My Father’s Guns
My father died when I was too young to know how it happened, but I always believed that he died in his sleep. This was a disturbing thought when I was six and seven years old, especially at night, lying in the bunk bed below my older brother, because I had insomnia and chronic nightmares and, lying there in the spooky darkness, with the handlike shadows of the fig tree leaves waving at me through the window, I often wondered if I too could die in my sleep. If my father did it, why not me? It seemed like a peaceful way to go, like slipping your head into the warm water of the bathtub, but even if I considered entering it peacefully, eternal nothingness gave me the willies.
I vaguely remember my mother telling me, “One day, your father just didn’t wake up.”
We had a space heater in our room, and mother always told us to turn it off before we went to sleep, or the blue flames might burn off all the oxygen in the room.
“You wouldn’t want to wake up dead, would you?” she asked. Like papa?
We never talked about my father when I was growing up, and the only souvenirs we had of his existence were a double-barrel .410 shotgun, a .30-.30 rifle, and the disembodied bill of a sawfish he had caught off Galveston Island in 1949. The sawfish bill was a pale yellow, bony snout about three feet long, with a vicious row of teeth on either side. I was fascinated by this bill, by the yellowish teeth, thrilled that such an absurd creature could possibly exist. We kept it in the back of the closet of the boys’ bedroom, where my brother and I slept, and I took it out to look at it and play with it so often that some of the teeth fell out. By the time I was ten or eleven, it resembled a monstrous broken comb.
My brother was more fascinated by the guns, and he used to take me hunting in the woods around our house near the outskirts of San Antonio. As great white hunters, our routine was to walk slowly through the oak and juniper thickets, as quietly as possible, trying to sneak up on something and kill it. Once my brother shot a cottontail, and as we stood over it in the gray autumn air, blood sprayed on the brown grass beside it, it seemed to stare up in our eyes with a what-did-I-ever-do-to-you look. Mainly, though, all we shot were cactus, broad green blades of prickly pear. They were easy to kill. They couldn’t run away. You could walk right up to them and say, “I’m gonna kill you, plant!” And blast away. Nobody sympathizes with plants, not even vegetarians. You have to sing or moo for our compassion. Fur helps too. Or warm blood. Look at fish. Who defends the mackerel? The herring? The sawfish?
Tommy, being seven years older than I, inherited my father’s guns. This was fine with me at the time, because I knew I would never make it as a hunter. Once, in the Big Hole Valley in Montana, I shot at ground hogs in the fields with a .30-.30. I felt like a prairie hit man, sent from Detroit with a contract on the Marmota monax family. The pickup truck was parked on a dirt road, and we leaned against the hot hood for support. I purposely missed. My friend also had a gun, and I kept thinking that any minute he was going to shoot me. This was an irrational but persistent feeling. Maybe it was because I kept thinking about shooting him. Just a crazy thought, I know, but one that comes now and then. To prove my courage, I kept turning my back to him, whenever I had to reload. I squinted in the direction of the mountains and said, “I think I smell elk.”
Guns are always going off when you’re not expecting it, as if they have a mean streak of their own. I knew a Texas Ranger who had to carry his gun at all times, in case he needed to shoot first and ask questions later. He was fishing in a skiff in Aransas Bay when his .45 fell out of his holster, went off, and shot him in the face. The bullet went in below his jaw and out his cheek; he lost an eye and afterward wore a black patch. He was skinny, six-foot-six, had white grizzled hair, and wore stove-pipe Levis. With the black patch, he took on an almost legendary quality, and he continued to come into my family’s restaurant after the accident. He would place the gun on the table, in front of him, as he ate his chicken fried steak. He seemed almost inverted by the accident, somehow made bad, almost an outlaw. For some odd reason we laughed and joked a lot whenever he was there eating, and the merriment seemed forced, nervous, as if he had yelled at everyone “Dance!” and pointed his gun.
It wasn’t until I was seventeen that my sister Judy set me straight about my father’s death. “Boy, you’ll believe anything,” she said, when I somehow mentioned his dying in his sleep.
She told me he had blown his head off with a shotgun. Although that seems such an ugly way to put it, that’s how I remember it. And maybe that’s the best way to state something so catastrophic. Bluntly.
I later wondered if he had used that same double-barrel .410 that we used to hunt cactus with. Would my mother have let us use that gun? And even if it wasn’t the same gun, why did she let a nine- and a sixteen-year-old wander around the woods alone, playing Lee Harvey Oswald? (She always told us to take the spoon out of our iced tea glasses when we were drinking, because we might put our eyes out. But don’t forget your ammo!)
I remember those guns, how heavy and hard they were, how they hung from the walnut gun rack in our room, with a fishing rod on the top rack, the red and white bobber still clipped to the monofilament line, the treble hook stuck in the cork of the handle, how the guns smelled of oil, the serious click of the broken breach. Whose lives were we going to defend with those guns? Whose lives were we going to take? To end?
These thoughts disturb me now more than ever, replacing the fear of dying in my sleep I was once so naively obsessed with, because my brother also used a shotgun to kill himself.
Of the three males in my family, two killed themselves with shotguns.
I don’t want to be the next.
I wonder if Tommy used the same gun he inherited from my father? But it’s not a question that’s easy to ask, not a question you perhaps want an answer for. The gun has not been passed on to me and has left the hands of the family, probably now stacked in a row of rifles in a San Antonio pawn shop, waiting for a family quarrel, waiting for a little disagreement among friends, waiting for action. I have no souvenirs left to remind me of my father’s life, not even the yellowish snout of the sawfish, lost years ago in a move from one house to the next.
The only souvenir of my father I own now is a handful of photographs taken of him after World War Two, when he’s young and smiling and his eyes are as blue as my own.—William J. Cobb
I should also note that I’m glad to report that my own relationship with my daughter, Lili, is much more peaceful, and healthier. She made me a paper buffalo for Father’s Day! And here’s a picture of us a few years ago, backpacking in Yellowstone National Park.